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I Sit And Look Out: Father-in-law of columnist never let old age slow him down

In the years that my father-in-law lived with us in Richmond Hill, he became a member of the Institute for Retired Professionals at the New School. In IRP, the members could take New School courses, but they also made presentations to their peers about their fields of expertise. I remember Dad did a research paper on the history of dentistry. He sculpted a head of a young man, which I see every day on one of our bookshelves. It is very well-done.

One day, he told us, with a puckish smile, he was attending a class on the history of slang and mentioned some words which are not printable in a family newspaper. His smile betrayed his joy at being a student once again.

He read The New York Times thoroughly. I always knew it was Saturday because Dad saved the Book Review for last and he read it on a Saturday.

He kept up with current events and enjoyed discussions of them. He was a great reader. He had a wonderful relationship with all our friends.

He traveled to England with us three times when he was in his 80s and was a delightful companion. Most of the time, we stayed in bed and breakfasts, which he enjoyed. One day, as we drove down a hedge-lined lane, he asked me to stop the car. He picked berries from the hedgerows — he said it reminded him of his youth on the Polish farm — and made a present of them to our landlady.

On another occasion, we stayed with friends in Yorkshire. Geoffrey Mitchell was a solicitor and jazz enthusiast and had traveled extensively in the United States. One night, Dad played host to the three of us and members of Geoff’s family in a fine restaurant in York. We had drinks in the lounge and then went to dinner. At one point, the waitress asked Dad if he wanted more wine. He looked up at her and, without missing a beat, said, “My dear, if I have anything more to drink, I shall see double and think single!”

One Sunday, we went for a pub lunch in Somerset. There were many local families in the pub. A man came over, introduced himself and said he had heard Dad speaking.

“How long ago did you leave Somerset?” the man asked, quite seriously.

Dad, with what I would call an educated New York accent, could not convince the man that he was not a “Zomerzet” native.

His mind stayed sharp to the end. His body needed care and he was distressed about that. In his final days, he was in a nursing home in Massachusetts, near my brother-in-law’s family. A grandson came to visit him and at one point Dad pointed upward and said, “They forgot my return ticket upstairs.”

After his death, among the notes we received was a letter from a Danish friend, a lawyer and a Far Eastern language specialist. It was an eloquent tribute to Dad, in which he was described as the type of gentleman needed in Europe, our friend said, but who had brought his intelligence, wit and gravitas to the New World.

Dad did not like cant or hypocrisy. A silent look could tell you what he thought. I think, however, he would have appreciated those words because they spoke of someone who was not only a gentleman, but a gentle man.

His loss was a great one for all of us, but the memories of him are indelible.

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